“After your wife dies it feels like all you do is tell people your wife is dead,” says Joanna Sedley-Burke, 49, who lost her wife Paula, 45, to undiagnosed pneumonia in April 2017. “People assume you are straight but you constantly have to say, no, I meant my wife. It is exhausting.”
Joanna lives in the home she shared with Paula in North Stifford, Essex, near to the Basildon hospital where her partner of 20 years died unexpectedly less than a year ago. Being LGBT has compounded the pain of her grief, she explains. She feels like she has to “come out all over again”. And she isn’t alone.
A member of a bereavement counselling Facebook group, set up by WAY Widowed And Young for people under 50 who have lost a partner, Joanna has found other same-sex widows experiencing this second coming out period.
A 2016 study, published in the Palliative Medicine journal, found that LGBT couples experience additional “stressors” during bereavement such as homophobia, failure to acknowledge the relationship, legal and financial issues and the ‘shadow’ of HIV.
Jonathan David Brown, 34, who lost his husband Martin, 36, three years ago when he suffered a heart attack caused by arterial sclerosis, says the lack of community has been a struggle. “Because same-sex marriage is relatively new, most gay people who are married have still got their husband or wife. There are only a few who have been bereaved.”
“There are fewer people going through this process and there is less support,” says Joanna, who contacted Stonewall in the aftermath of her wife’s death but was told there was nowhere they could recommend to help. “Nothing can prepare you for the death of your soul mate.”
HuffPost UK contacted Stonewall for statistics on the number of people affected by this issue but a spokesperson said they didn’t have any.
Both Paula and Martin died unexpectedly, although Paula had been ill for many years - forced to retire from her career as a Microsoft software engineer when diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.
Whereas Martin, an NHS mental health nurse “died out of the blue” in the middle of the night when he had a heart attack next to Jonathan in bed. “The police man gave me his wedding ring and I had to sign for it. He told me where Martin’s going, you can’t have any jewellery.”
The police man gave me his wedding ring and I had to sign for it. He told me where Martin’s going, you can’t have any jewellery...”Jonathan
It was only in April 2017 that those in civil partnerships were given access to government bereavement support payments, and today couples co-habiting are still are not permitted them.
Luckily in Joanna and Jonathan’s case both couples were married (and Joanna says most of her personal affairs had joint names assigned to them). Jonathan also receives his husband’s NHS pension payments.
“I had people asking was she my daughter or mother when presented with the death certificate,” says Joanna. “A client at work said - I didn’t know you were gay. And even the hospital referred to me as husband at one point in the medical notes.
“Being gay in this situation for me feels different, whether that is politically correct to say it I guess doesn’t matter,” adds Joanna.
Joanna says that she hopes the younger LGBT generation won’t have to deal with the same issues and will be afforded a greater support network around grief and the loss of a partner. “We have the right to marry and therefore seeing a puzzled look on someone’s face is something that organisations really need to think about now.”
Georgia Elms, chair at WAY, says: “WAY would like to reach out to people from the LGBT community to let them know that there is support available through our peer-to-peer support network, which is open to anyone aged 50 or under who is overcoming the loss of their partner – whatever their sexual orientation, male or female, married or not, with or without children.”
Useful websites and helplines:
- WAY Widowed And Young is a bereavement support charity and the only one in the UK for those aged 50 or under when their partner died | https://www.widowedandyoung.org.uk/
- London Lesbian & Gay switchboard (LLGS) is a free confidential support & information helpline for LGBT communities throughout the UK | 0300 330 0630
- Manchester Lesbian and Gay Switchboard is a free support, information and referral service for the Manchester and North-West area | 0161 235 8000
- Stonewall for more information on other LGBT services and helplines | 08000 502020